Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Kuwait Port Project Makes Waves in Iraqi Politics

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 19 May 2011 12:17

With the month-long parliamentary holiday well underway Iraqi politics has lost some of its momentum. Despite rumours about imminent “emergency sessions”, a decision on the security ministries still seems some way off.

Meanwhile, a decision by the Kuwaiti government to press ahead with a project to build a grand new port on the Bubyan Island, to be named Mubarak Port, appears to be what occupies the minds of most Iraqi politicians these days. Since the project entered the public debate a short while ago, politicians of all stripes have rushed to condemn it.

Bubyan is the territory marked as “Kuwait” on the above map

It is interesting that many protests against the project are not focused on the territorial status of the Bubyan Island as such, despite the fact that Iraq claimed ownership of the island for much of the twentieth century and that it featured as one among several elements in the official Iraqi justification for invading Kuwait in 1990. Rather, several of the arguments against the port are of a practical nature. Above all, commentators tend to focus on the fact that if Kuwait finishes its port project ahead of Iraq’s own scheme of a great new harbour at neighbouring Fao south of Basra, Iraqi commerce will suffer. Some even predict that the Fao project will be abandoned altogether as a consequence of the Kuwaiti initiative.

As a result of this focus, the protests may perhaps turn out to be short-lived: Even some of the protestors admit that the Iraqi government itself must shoulder some responsibility for having procrastinated with building port facilities in a more timely fashion at Fao, which would have enjoyed unrivalled access to the Gulf and altogether avoided the problems of the Khor Abdallah – the sound shared with Kuwait in which Bubyan lies and which leads to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

It should still be noted that lingering Iraqi claims to Bubyan are not entirely gone, despite the UN demarcation subsequent to the Gulf War. Some legal experts contend that UN boundary commission went too far in settling the maritime border (in addition to the land border), and by using the median of the Khor Abdallah sound instead of the thalweg (the line that follows the natural riverbed). In a recent interview, Tariq Harb – a legal adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – went as far as claiming that the UN demarcation under UNSC 833 was illegitimate or at least disputable given the alleged absence of any Iraqis on the border commission. This seems to misstate the case somewhat, since the Iraqi government was indeed represented through Riyad al-Qaysi and eventually accepted the demarcation (in 1994). Only a more fundamental challenge by the current Iraqi government relating to the very legitimacy of the pre-2003 Baathist government as a representative of Iraq in international affairs would be able to question the post-1991 settlement more generally, but there would still remain difficulties in finding historical arguments for treating the Bubyan (and the second disputed island of Warba) different from the rest of Kuwait.

For now, perhaps the most interesting result of the Kuwaiti port project  is the creation of a new alliance in the Iraqi parliament that brings together people who usually stand rather far apart but who now all agree to watch the issue of the Kuwaiti port scheme closely. A new parliamentary “formation” (tajammu, thus apparently not a bloc or kutla) was declared Wednesday, with members mainly from the breakaway faction of Iraqiyya known as White Iraqiyya (Aliya Nusayf, Aziz al-Mayahi and Kazim al-Shammari),  Iraqiyya itself (Attab al-Duri, Qusay al-Abbadi and Hasan al-Hamdani), Sadrists (Asma al-Musawi , Hayfa al-Atwani and Rafi Abd al-Jabbar) plus Izzat Shabandar (an ex-Iraqiyya member who is now a member of State of Law).

So far, of course, this is a small-sized movement and mostly a curiosity. It is probably still a phenomenon that the political leadership needs to take seriously as they move ahead on more important issues like the security ministries and the question of a post-2011 US military presence. It is noteworthy that this alliance brings together both Sadrists and Iraqiyya members (Duri) that have been publicly critical about a post-2011 American presence and if Maliki wants to challenge them on this issue he will need to do more important things than bickering over vice-presidencies. The latter holds true also for the Salih al-Mutlak faction of Iraqiyya which lately has spent time challenging the newly elected vice-president for State of Law, Khudayr al-Khuzai! (According to the law on the deputy presidents, only the president himself has an explicit right to initiate a process of sacking his deputies – parliament can only summon them to question them.) What the vice-presidential vote demonstrated was that Maliki’s dream of a “political majority” is still a long way off – in this case it was threatened through opposition from both Sadrists and ISCI of his own, all-Shiite National Alliance. The latter may well opt to join the Sadrists in opposing any SOFA extension, making it doubly important for Maliki to bring Iraqiyya firmly over on his side if he does indeed harbour a desire to obtain a parliamentary majority for any kind of prolonged US presence beyond 2011.

3 Responses to “Kuwait Port Project Makes Waves in Iraqi Politics”

  1. Santana said

    It is my understanding after talking to many officials within USG and UN that the Port issue is overblown and has become highly politicized. First off the Kuwaitis have a right to build a Port or anything else for that matter on their territory. The problem lies in the Waterway- the big vessels can only utilize half the waterway that is dredged and has depth- the Iraqi ships must use that as well and according to some Kuwaitis I talked to, means that Iraqi ships must raise the Kuwaiti flag when they pass thru Kuwaiti waters (per International Maritime law)and the Iraqi ships refuse to do so (maybe ego or maybe because many Iraqis do not recognise those waters as being Kuwaiti..??). If more dredging is done then there should be no problem for two major ports built so close. I think there is even more to it…the Sadrists make most of their money from Zubair and Umm Qasr (kind of a “mafia” type control since 2003)and anything impeding access or flow is a redline for them. The other issue is Iran has been putting covert pressure on Badrists like Furat Al-Sharaa and Hadi Al-Ameri to “raise hell” about the Mubarak Port…..a- to create problems for Kuwait(in retaliation for Deraa Al-Jazeerah/Bahrain) and to increase or at least re-establish the Iraqi-Kuwaiti rift afer some warming of relations recently with the strategic aim of keeping Iraq away from “Al-Bait Alarabi” or any closeness with the GCC B- To back the Sadrists and make sure that they maintain control of Iraq’s Gulf access for future cooperation with them when the U.S leaves and Iran is able to continue it’s planned control of Southern Iraq which Iran sees as vital in helping it break/violate the sanctions that are choking it.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Interesting with the Badr angle on this. Ahmad al-Sulayti of ISCI is also making headlines today calling the Kuwaiti project a “conspiracy” involving external and internal forces! So far, to the best of my knowledge, only Ali al-Dabbagh has publicly supported it from the Iraqi side, and he now says he was misquoted in Kuwaiti media.

    More generally, one has to assume that the Shatt al-Arab maritime boundary also forms part of Iranian thinking on this, especially since the Maliki government has signalled that it does not accept the Algiers agreement of 1975 which settled the border at the thalweg of that river. Prior to that, dating back to Ottoman times, the whole of the river had been controlled by the authorities at Basra so that even if one stood in shallow water on the banks of the “Iranian” side of the river one was still technically in Ottoman/Iraqi territorial waters!

    From what I understand, in the case of Khor Abdallah, using the thalweg instead of the median would apparently give Iraq a greater share of the sound.

  3. Michael Knights said

    I would think the key objection of Iraqi politicians is that the Bubyan port is a major threat to the new Al-Faw Grand Port, a fast-developing Iraqi project in which many Shiite politicians are benefitting, directly or indirectly. I would look to economics and patronage/contracts as the key motivator. Iraq will remain highly import-reliant for years or decades; over 60% of the imports come via sea, to either Basrah or via Kuwait; and the ports are one of the biggest money-making ventures in Iraq. Anything that can put more of this process into Iraqi hands and reduce the Kuwaiti component is big business … and thus big poltiics. Particualrly for the minister of trasport.



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